Iron Cross

The Iron Cross (German: Eisernes Kreuz) is a military decoration of Germany which was established by King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia and first awarded on 10 March 1813. The Iron Cross is only awarded in wartime and is presented in grades depending on the rank of the servicemember. In addition to the Napoleonic Wars, the Iron Cross was awarded during the Franco-Prussian War, and the First and Second World Wars. It has not been awarded since May 1945.

The Iron Cross is perhaps most directly associated as a medal of Nazi Germany. However, it remains a powerful military symbol in German culture and was taken up again by West Germany's military forces (the Bundeswehr) in 1955.



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1813 Iron Cross
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1870 Iron Cross

The Iron Cross (a black four-pointed cross with white trim, with the arms widening towards the ends, similar to a Maltese Cross) was designed by the neo-classical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel and reflects the cross borne by the Teutonic knights in the 14th century which was also the emblem of Frederick the Great. When the Quadriga of the Goddess of Peace was retrieved from Paris at Napoleon's fall, the Goddess was re-established atop Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. An Iron Cross was substituted for her laurel wreath, making her into a Goddess of Victory.

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World War I Iron Cross
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1939 Bar to the 1914 Iron Cross

In contrast to many other medals, the Iron Cross has a very simple design, unadorned, and is made from relatively cheap and common materials. It was traditionally cast in iron (although, in later years, the decoration was cast in zinc and aluminium).

The ribbon for the 1813, 1870, and 1914 Iron Cross (2nd Class) was black with two thin white bands. The non-combatant version of this award had the same medal, but the black and white colors on the ribbon were reversed.

Since the Iron Cross was issued over several different periods of German history, the Iron Cross is annoted by a year numeral, to indicate in which historical period the Iron Cross was issued: so, for example, an Iron Cross from the First World War would be annoted with the year numeral "1914", while the same decoration from the Second World War would be annoted with the numeral "1939". All Iron Crosses from the Second World War also contained a swastika centered on the decoration. The reverse of the 1870, 1914, and 1939 series Iron Crosses had the year "1813" annoted on the lower arm, symbolizing the year the award was first created.

It was also possible for a holder of the 1914 Iron Cross to be awarded a higher grade of the 1939 Iron Cross. A reward of the first or second class was also possible. In such cases, a "1939 Clasp" ("spange") would be worn on the original 1914 Iron Cross. (A similar award was made in 1914, but that was quite rare, since there were few in service who held the 1870 Iron Cross.)

Early awards

The Iron Cross was awarded first in 1813, during the Napoleonic Wars. The German King, Wilhelm I authorised further awards on 19 July 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War. Recipients of the 1870 Iron Cross who were still in service in 1895 received a 25 year clasp. The Iron Cross was reauthorized by Kaiser Wilhelm II on 5 August 1914, at the start of the First World War.

The 1813, 1870 and 1914 Iron Crosses had three grades:

  • Iron Cross 2nd Class
  • Iron Cross 1st Class
  • Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (German language: Grokreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes, often simply Grokreuz)

The Grand Cross was intended for senior Generals of the German Army. An even higher decoration, the Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross, was only awarded twice, to Prince von Blcher in 1813 and to Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg in 1918. A third award was planned for the most successful German general during the Second World War, but was not made after the defeat of Germany in 1945.

In the First World War, approximately 5 million Iron Crosses of the lower grade (second class) were issued, as well as around 218,000 of the higher grade (first class). Exact numbers of awards are not known, since the Prussian archives were destroyed during the Second World War. The multitude of awards reduced the status and reputation of the decoration. One of the more famous holders of the 1914 Iron Cross 1st Class was Adolf Hitler (which was unusual as very few holders of the 1914 Iron Cross 1st Class were enlisted soldiers: Hitler held the rank of Corporal).

Second World War

Adolf Hitler again restored the Iron Cross in 1939, continuing the tradition of issuing it in various grades. The Iron Cross of the Second World War was divided into three main series of decorations with an intermediate category, the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, instituted between the lowest, the Iron Cross, and the highest, the Grand Cross. The Knight's Cross, effectively replaced the Prussian Pour le Mrite. Hitler did not care for the Pour le Mrite as (a) it was an Imperial decoration and (b) because only officers could be awarded it. The Knight's Cross was deliberately intended by Hitler to be awarded for bravery regardless of rank. The ribbon of the medal (2nd class and Knights Cross) was different to the earlier Iron Crosses in that the color red was used in addition to the traditional black and white). Hitler did not like this medal awarded to non-combatants, like what happened in previous wars, so he created the War Merit Cross specifically as a replacement for the Non-Combatant Iron Cross.

Iron Cross

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Iron Cross Second Class
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Iron Cross First Class

The standard 1939 Iron Cross was issued in the following two grades:

  • Iron Cross 2nd Class
  • Iron Cross 1st Class

The Iron Cross was awarded for bravery in battle as well as other military contributions to a battlefield environment. The Iron Cross Second Class was worn as a chest ribbon with the cross suspended from the ribbon. The Iron Cross First Class was a pin-on metal worn centered on a uniform breast pocket. The Iron Cross was a progressive award, with second class having to be earned before the first class and so on for the higher degrees.

It is estimated that some 2.3 million Second Class Iron Crosses were awarded in the Second World War, and 300,000 in the First Class. Two Iron Cross First Class recipients were women, one of those being test pilot Hanna Reitsch.

Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross

The Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (German language: Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes, often simply Ritterkreuz) recognized extreme battlefield bravery. The Knight's Cross was divided into five degrees:

  • Knight's Cross
  • Knight's Cross with Oakleaves
  • Knight's Cross with Oakleaves and Swords
  • Knight's Cross with Oakleaves, Swords, and Diamonds
  • Knight's Cross with Golden Oakleaves, Swords, and Diamonds

In total, 7,313 awards of the Knight's Cross were made, but only 883 received Oakleaves and 159 received Oakleaves and Swords. Only 27 men were ever awarded the Diamonds grade of the Knight's Cross, and Hans Rudel was the only recipient of the Knight's Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds.

The Knight's Cross was worn suspended from the collar.

Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (1939)

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1939 Grand Cross of the Iron Cross

Like the Knight's Cross, the Grand Cross was also worn suspended from the collar. The only recipient of the Grand Cross during the Second World War was Hermann Gring, who was awarded the decoration on July 19, 1940. The medal is in effect an oversized Knight's Cross. It had the same overall characteristics as the Knights Cross, but it was much larger measuring 63mm in width as opposed to about 44mm for the Iron cross and 48.5mm for the Knight's cross. It was originally intended to have outer edges lined in gold, but this was changed to silver before the award was presented.

The Grand Cross was worn with a 57mm wide ribbon bearing the same colors as the Knights Cross and 2nd Class ribbons. The award case was in red leather, with the eagle and the swastika outlined in gold.

The Grand Cross was not a bravery award. It was reserved solely for General Staff officers for "the most outstanding strategic decisions affecting the course of the war". Hermann Gring received the Grand Cross for his command of the Luftwaffe during the successful 1940 campaign against France, Belgium, and Holland (at the same time as he was promoted to Reich Marshall of the Greater German Reich).

The original Grand Cross that was presented to Gring (personally by Adolf Hitler) was destroyed during an air raid in his Berlin home. Gring had extra copies made, one of them with a platinum frame which he was wearing at the time of his surrender to the allies in 1945.

Several times in official photographs, Gring can be seen wearing his Pour le Mrite, his Knights Cross, and Grand Cross around his neck at the same time.

Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (1939)

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Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (1939)

This award was manufactured, but it was never awarded to any recipient. The only known example was found by Allied occupation forces at the end of the war, and was eventually added to the West Point military collection. The design was based on the 1914 version of the Star of the Grand Cross, but with the 1939 Iron Cross as the centerpiece. This award was meant to be worn like the Iron Cross First class (as a pendant). Like the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross, this award was not intended to be bestowed for bravery. It was intended to be bestowed upon the most successful General officer at the conclusion of the war. One would think that it was intended for Reichs Marshall Gring as he had already won the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (1939).

Side features of the Iron Cross and entitlements

Officers who were awarded with the Iron Cross were given entitlements and often wore signifing articles, for instance the Iron Cross signet ring or the cloth iron cross which is affixed to clothing. Also, those attaining more than one award for example an officer who attained the Iron Cross first class, the Iron Cross second class and the Knight's Cross of the order of the Iron Cross with the Oakleaves would be entitled to wear a pin during the Nazi period which exhibited three Iron Cross's with exaggerated Swastika, to consolidate the award.


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Post WWII Iron Cross

The Iron Cross is only a war-time decoration of the German military and the decoration has not been awarded since May 1945. Following the end of the Second World War, the government of West Germany permitted its military veterans to continue to wear the Iron Cross, although German law prohibits the wearing of an Iron Cross with a swastika. In 1957 the German government issued new Iron Crosses to World War II veterans, altered to display an Oak Leaf Cluster, instead of a swastika, in the center of the medal.

The Iron Cross was used as the symbol of the German Army until 1915, when it was replaced by a simpler form, a Greek cross, which was easier to recognize from a distance. The Iron Cross was taken up again by West Germany's military forces (the Bundeswehr) in 1955, despite its use by the Nazi Wehrmacht.

In 1977, Sam Peckinpah directed a film inspired by the Iron Cross, entitled Cross of Iron.

The Iron Cross has also been appropriated by several American sub-cultures after WWII. In particular, motorcycle clubs, surfing culture, and the hot rod and custom car cultures use the symbol in various forms.

External link

de:Eisernes Kreuz fr:Croix de fer he:עיטורי הוורמאכט no:Jernkorset pl:Krzyż Żelazny ru:Железный крест


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